June 11, 2006

Online viewing tip. Young American Bodies.

With the sixth episode now up at Nerve Video (though you'll naturally want to start with the first), we're now halfway through Joe Swanberg's oddly irresistible NSFW series, Young American Bodies, and I for one am certainly hoping Nerve will order up another round - at least.

Joe Swanberg

On its MySpace page - of course it has a MySpace page - YAB is described as an "indie soap opera for the web," and you can't help but feel while watching it that, as YouTube carries on growing exponentially (current estimates: 50,000 uploads and 50 million videos viewed per day) and vlogs race to catch up in number with blogs, YAB is a prime example not so much of the future preferred alternative to television but of the present preferred alternative.

But that much we know. Rather than dwell on its distribution, I want to turn to the work itself. Unfortunately, I haven't yet seen Joe's debut feature, Kissing on the Mouth, but I did catch and enjoy his second, LOL, in Austin in March. As in the films of, say, Woody Allen or Jacques Tati, the most compelling figures in LOL and YAB are those played by Joe himself; to an extent, the worlds of these films spring from and are cut and shaped - warped might be a better word - around the personalities of their respective writer-directors. To what extent in LOL and YAB is an interesting question because they're evidently the results of collaborative efforts. I'm guessing that however you'd describe Swanbergworld, he's got quite a number of friends living in it with him.

An early scene in LOL sets the tone, the storytelling mode. Tim (Swanberg) and his girlfriend Ada (Brigid Reagan) are on the beach. While she flirts with a good-looking but empty-headed hunk, Tim narrates the scene into his cell phone, telling the guy on the other end that she's just trying to get back at him for spending their quality time on the beach yapping into his phone. Because he's utterly aware of what he's doing, it's funny, but the addiction to mediated communication that keeps him incapable of RL communication grows more serious, problematic and just plain sadder as the story plays out. (That green shot up there, by the way, comes from YAB but could just as easily have come from LOL.) One evening, Ada's clearly in the mood. Tim, typing away as usual, says something to the effect that double-checks the situation, that it is indeed sex she's after. A "duh-you-idiot" look serves as confirmation, and he asks, "Could you give me, like, 20 minutes?" Well, no. Cut to foreplay - and to Tim stealing looks at his open laptop while they loll around in bed.

The two other 20-something men LOL centers on are no better off. Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf) is so focused on hooking up with a ridiculous fantasy he's found on a come-hither website that he brutally ignores the shy advances of an attractive girl who expresses more interest in him than he probably deserves. Best scene: they sleep over at her parents' place and, though she might have made room for him in her bed, he spends the night resuscitating an ancient PC and cobbling together a makeshift net connection. Chris (C Mason Wells) has a girlfriend willing to send provocative shots she snaps of herself on her cell phone, but when he complains they aren't sexy enough, we know that whatever it is he's looking for, it won't be coming to him via that phone.

Gadget fetishism plays a much smaller role in YAB, but there's far more real sex going on (and strangely loud kissing, too, I can't help adding). But as Paul Harrill notes at Self-Reliant Filmmaking, "it's not porn - not even close." The sex here is as varied as it is in life; sometimes it's real lovemaking, other times it's just for fun, and at least once, it's simply a way of warding off loneliness. But for all the flopping bodies, the network of friends and acquaintances in YAB have just as much trouble finding shared wavelengths as the characters in LOL. At one point, Casey (Eve Rounds), reluctantly filling Ben (Joe Swanberg) in on her problems with her boyfriend, tells him they've already had "the communication conversation." It hasn't helped.

If the narrative here - more evenly distributed among the women and men than in LOL - sounds like a series of frustrations, first, YAB is, after all, a "soap," and second, the honesty with which the characters are written and played is the real attraction (it also happens to suitably justify the explicitness of the sex). At one point, Ben's roommate, Dia (Kris Williams), chastises him for being such a "dick," and he stands there, furious - and smiling. Why is he smiling, she demands. He thinks this is funny? No, not at all. What is that bizarre reflex that breaks out a smile in the face of pain? Whatever it is, Joe plays it perfectly.

"When it comes to this quest for realism," writes Karina Longworth in a very fine review of LOL at Cinematical, "I've read reviews of Swanberg's work that try to peg him as Andrew Bujalski-lite, which is somewhat unfair. Though both young filmmakers are in some ways using naturalism to investigate modern (mis)communication, Swanberg's characters actively fuck with one another in ways that Bujalski's do not."

Agreed. And though Bujalski makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in LOL, Joe may (or may not) be as tired of hearing Bujalski's name brought up in discussion of his work as Bujalski is of hearing Cassavetes brought up in discussion of his. Even so, the references aren't entirely fruitless. A few weeks ago, a friend, fretting over the current state of American independent film, complained that he was seeing too many filmmakers who seem to have viewed Funny Ha Ha and decided that less is always more, when obviously, that simply is not the case. On the one hand, though, we have to credit trendsetting films when credit is due. Both Kevin Smith and Spike Lee have said that, when they saw Stranger Than Paradise, it dawned on them that they could make films, too. So blame Jarmusch if you'd like for Jersey Girl and She Hate Me, but if you're going to, be sure and thank him for Clerks and Do the Right Thing. At the same time (and this is the other hand), both of those last two films are uniquely Smith's and Lee's; they've channeled that inspiration into work that is utterly their own, while anyone else who made work too derivative of Jarmusch's ten or fifteen or more years ago most likely hasn't been heard from since.

As for Joe Swanberg, it's the "Bujalski-lite" accusation that is, as Karina writes, unfair, even if one prefers Bujalski's films. First, I have no idea how much of an inspiration Bujalski might be for Joe, but that's ultimately beside the point. I'd argue that each gives us something in his films the other doesn't. There are similarities, of course. They're about the same age, or in the same neighborhood age-wise, and so are their characters. The question of what to do with one's life - as opposed to what one's done with it - lurks and occasionally pounces. Improvisation is part of the process behind LOL and YAB and, though Bujalski insists his characters speak the lines written for them, there's an improvised feel to the dialogue in the work of both filmmakers (hence critics' autopilot Cassavetes allusions).

But there's also more of an improvised feel about Joe Swanberg's camerawork, even though he often ends up making more conventional choices about where to place that camera (though certainly not always). With both filmmakers, we spend a lot of time indoors, but Bujalski more often tends to want to take in an entire room within the frame; he always makes sure we know exactly where we are, whereas in some of Joe's scenes, particularly in YAB, location is practically irrelevant. And of course, there's texture. Shot in grainy black-and-white, great swaths of Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation look as if they could have been filmed in 1980 or even 1960. Joe's very mid-2000s digital video work occasionally soaks up saturated colors, or, every now and then, as in scenes in a club in YAB, he doesn't seem to mind at all if the screen goes black - it only draws Ben and the girl he's flirting with closer together as they lean in towards a candle's flame and away from the noise all around them.

The most important difference between the character-driven films of Swanberg and Bujalski, though, as Karina suggests, lies in the characters themselves. No character is ever completely truthful, but Bujalski's do tend to try harder at it; there's a lot more conscious lying going on in Joe's films. A keen awareness of their own vulnerability lies behind both contradictory impulses. Bujalski's characters deconstruct and implant various layers of disclaimers within each sentence even as they speak them. That's simply going to be too much trouble for several of Joe's characters, who'll emote a little more recklessly, sometimes a lot more recklessly. What most defines the differences between these two worlds is the difference between the personalities that conjure them.

But I've already gone on too long with this little compare-n-contrast exercise. On Thursday, June 15, Austinites will be able to take such comparisons in an entirely different direction when Kissing on the Mouth screens on a double bill with Bryan Poyser's Dear Pillow. Both directors will be in attendance and proceeds will help finance a short Poyser aims to shoot with Joe Swanberg and Pillow star Rusty Kelley taking on roles. I don't know, but I'd guess they met at SXSW, which is also where I saw for the first time work by Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, David Lowery (who also pops up for a moment in LOL) and other filmmakers helping shape not only the future of the art but its present as well.

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Posted by dwhudson at June 11, 2006 1:21 PM


Interesting. I have yet to see LOL, Kissing on the Mouth, and Mutual Appreciation, but I *have* seen Funny Ha Ha and am currently making my way through YAB. I saw Funny Ha Ha a few years ago so I've had some time to digest it and I have to say that I really, really h a t e the movie. It's just so safe + boring and seems to me pretty blatantly made by a college student. College students would come into my old job all the time (I used to sell zines) and they would always just aimlessly shuffle around the store, shrugging their shoulders and vaguely mumbling "ho hum, ho hum." This is the kind of vibe I get from Funny Ha Ha. Tedious. Cute. Precious. I used to think (*wanted* to think?) the film was a subtle + brilliant critique of such a padded existence; sadly, no. I don't think Bujalski has it in him to critique anything.

I'm making a film right now and I suppose you could say it's in the "tradition" of Bujalski, Swanberg, etc. but not really. The majority (if not all) of Bujalski's and Swanberg's characters seem to be white, middle-class college students, whereas my characters are poor, working-class twenty-somethings; some of them are white, some aren't. Some of them are hetero, some aren't. All are unequivocal fuck-ups (drugs, depression, sex, etc); the types I'm sure would never make into a Bujalski flick. These indie movies all seem to be about the same people. And the same people all seem to eat 'em up and blog about them. It's just one big (excuse me for this) mutual appreciation society.

I don't really understand the comparisons to Cassavetes where Bujalski is concerned. Sure, both filmmaker's movies are episodic rather than straight narratives, but Bujalski's characters' problems seem to be "gee, what're we gonna do w/ our lives?" whereas w/ Cassavetes' characters, something is *always* happening *to* them or *because* of them. We're not just watching a slice in the life of Mabel Longhetti or Cosmo Vitelli or Maria Forst-- all of these characters are in sink-or-swim, life-or-death situations. Cassavetes didn't just turn on the camera to see what would happen (which, unfortunately, is what people seem to interpret his films as being)-- he caught people in crises. I dunno, but I can't really find much interest in post-collegiate ennui.

Posted by: aaron at June 11, 2006 5:07 PM

Joe's a smart guy. The fact that he's broadcasting online now takes him away from cinema and into an arena where the lack of detail already apparent in his two features may actually translate well. That is to say, the tiny screen where one watches YOUNG AMERICAN BODIES is fine for well-lit faces and bland interiors.

As you may or may not have pointed out on the list, David, the Harvard Film Archive has grouped together several films by new and newish American filmmakers in a series titled "New American Independent Cinema". The selections are curious, and I find that my favorite works in the bunch -- Zahedi's I AM A SEX ADDICT, Cohen's CHAIN, and Reichardt's OLD JOY -- all have in common the fact that their makers are a little bit older and seem to possess a more refined artistic sensibility (as well as a basic understanding of film history).

The others -- films by Duplass, Swanberg, Bujalski, Finn, and Miranda July -- seem to be full of quirks and fine moments, but are not fully realized works. But these directors -- Swanberg being the youngest of the bunch, I'm sure -- are babies. They can only grow from here. I do wish, however, that some of them wouldn't be so nihilistic in abandoning formal aesthetic approaches in favor of facile naturalism.

Posted by: Gabe Klinger at June 12, 2006 12:13 AM

I like what I've seen from both Bujalski and Swanberg, and while I certainly understand that they might cringe to some extent at the comparison to Cassavetes, I generally read mentions of him in reviews of LOL and Funny Ha Ha as placing te film in a genre, not suggesting the "quality" of their films or implying that their films are derivative. I really like what Swanberg is doing with YAB. In fact, it's one of the first series I've seen to use what might be called "web television" in an inventive, thoughtful way.

Posted by: Chuck at June 12, 2006 7:49 AM

Finally catching up a bit with comments here, I meant to note a few days ago that Cynthia Rockwell has an excellent entry arguing that the real distinction between what I was calling the "worlds" of Bujalski and Swanberg is primarily socioeconomic.

Meantime, Gabe, many thanks, because somehow I completely missed out on noticing that Harvard Film Archive series - it's on through June 25, for those in the area. Interesting observation about the different aesthetics of different age groups. Makes you wonder if it's really a matter of accumulated experience and maturity or a matter of coming of age in different media environments. I have my doubts about both, actually; after all, the age differences here aren't all that great.

Chuck, I don't think we'd be going out on a limb to predict that we'll be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing. Chasing Windmills, I suppose, would be an early "hit"; what'll be interesting is when someone comes with a watercooler-level hit, an online Lost, Sopranos or Deadwood.

Posted by: David Hudson at June 16, 2006 12:49 AM